Tipperary make hard work of Limerick IT students

The new season gathers pace with Tipperary preparing for a Crystal final against Clare next weekend. That’s the prize for a stuttering win by a makeshift team last Sunday at Dolla against the students of LIT. Presumably a more fortified line-out will face Davy Fitz and company in the decider, which will be our last competitive outing ahead of the start of the league later in the month.

The new season gathers pace with Tipperary preparing for a Crystal final against Clare next weekend. That’s the prize for a stuttering win by a makeshift team last Sunday at Dolla against the students of LIT. Presumably a more fortified line-out will face Davy Fitz and company in the decider, which will be our last competitive outing ahead of the start of the league later in the month.

In other news Sarsfields have been busy preparing for the club’s first ever All Ireland semi; they face Offaly champs, Kilcormac-Killoughey, at Portlaoise on Saturday. And in Harty Cup news Thurles CBS failed narrowly in their semi-final with Dungarvan Colleges, but Our Lady’s Templemore are still standing after a cracking draw with ArdScoil Ris in the second semi; that replay goes ahead this Saturday at Nenagh.

With the clock ticking down in Dolla Tipperary’s lead was pared back to a vulnerable two points and – briefly - an embarrassing outcome looked possible. In the late tension, however, it was substitute, Michael Heffernan, who banished any blushes with a fine individual goal that closed out the game. Tipperary had survived after something of a scare.

Given the line out that we fielded I’ve heard suggestions that Tipperary wanted to lose this game. It’s a theory I don’t buy into. Certainly the urgent body language of Michael Ryan patrolling the sideline didn’t suggest apathy. Likewise the second half introduction of players like Noel McGrath, Shane Bourke, ‘Buggy’ O’Meara and Michael Heffernan read like reinforcements, implying some management concern at the way things were panning out. No, I suspect they gambled on a makeshift line out and very nearly got caught. Serious managements never wish to lose a match, however insignificant.

With an extended panel of nearly forty players and even allowing for the various absences we could surely have called upon fifteen without resorting to outsiders. In that sense I don’t quite understand the thinking behind Sunday’s line-out.

At half time it all looked routine enough. We’d played with the wind and built a ten point lead in a goal-less half. Not that there was anything particularly dazzling from Tipperary but we were dominating the play and after a slow opening quarter we eventually strung together a decent sequence of points. John O’Dwyer had the best chance to add a goal but the ‘keeper saved well. Still with the students managing a mere three pointed frees Tipp looked comfortable.

Mind you it was pretty poor fare with little threat of a goal from our inside forwards. At half time Donagh Maher replaced an off-colour Thomas Stapleton at full back and Noel McGrath came in at midfield for Conor O’Brien.

LIT won the second half and it was the goals that set the alarm bells ringing in the Tipp camp. Darren Gleeson takes the hit on the first one. His short puck-out went direct to a corner forward and then in the follow-up he was penalised, perhaps harshly, as he tried to barge out with the ball. Free-taker, Gary Guilfoyle from Feakle, fairly buried the free.

The second goal was a bigger item of concern coming very near the end and leaving just two of a ten-point lead still intact. Again it was Guilfoyle who this time got a crucial flick to leave the ‘keeper helpless. Earlier LIT had missed another chance when Colin Madden blazed wide with only Darren Gleeson to beat, all of which indicated that Tipp were having difficulties. In the end blushes were spared by Mikey Heffernan’s goal but overall there wasn’t a lot to extol in the Tipp performance.

Our stand-out players were Shane McGrath at midfield, Jason Forde, John O’Dwyer and John O’Neill (during a first half spell). Shane Bourke added to our effort too when introduced and Michael Heffernan’s goal was a commendable individual item. It’s encouraging to see Shane McGrath putting in such an energetic shift at midfield. Jason Forde hit the two best points of the game into the wind in the second half – this guy has something special. John O’Dwyer was heavily involved too scoring from play and frees and O’Neill had that first half spurt to his credit, including his Simon Zebo act when he lost his stick.

Against that there were negatives. Tom Stapleton looked very unsteady at full back, James Woodlock fumbled a lot at centre forward and John O’Brien looked very ring-rusty after his lay-off. In fairness to some of these players they were playing out of position and this is wintry February so all judgments come with a health warning.

I expect a much stronger line-out to be on duty next Saturday night when the team faces Clare under lights at the Stadium. Nenagh appears to have been earmarked for this tie until that Harty draw intervened. In any case playing under lights is a useful preparation for our first league outing against Cork with similar illumination at Pairc Ui Rinn. I have no idea what side will take the field but obviously the management is limited in its choices with the Sarsfields quartet still busy, others college-tied and still more on the injury list. We won the corresponding fixture at Sixmilebridge last spring so it would be nice to hold onto the silverware.

Well, if the entertainment value at Dolla was modest it was major at Nenagh. A cracking Harty semi-final saw long-time leaders Templemore being overtaken – twice – in the final few minutes before salvaging a deserved draw through the heroics of Colin O’Riordan. As a spectacle it was well worth the short trip over from Dolla.

Ardscoil went in as slight favourites for this one but for long spells looked second best. Our Lady’s had the wind in the first half and were left to rue eight wayward attempts at goal – even the normally lethal John McGrath found his radar on the blink this time. Five-up at the break was scant enough reward for the Tipp school given their wind-aided dominance in that period.

The third quarter saw the Templemore lads hold their ground admirably into the wind, even taking the lead out to six at one stage. Eventually Ardscoil got the crucial goal which gave them renewed impetus for the final quarter. From here they drove on; it was amazing how the goal lifted their spirits with players dashing onto the breaks now with great zest. Templemore were forced into fouling and the lead eventually disappeared as the minutes ticked out. Twice the Tipp lads fell behind but each time Colin O’Riordan found the leveller, the second off a quickly-taken free by John McGrath. In the end justice was done, two admirable teams had played themselves to a standstill and a refixture was the best possible outcome.

It was fantastic stuff. Undeniably the man-of-the-match was Colin O’Riordan. He hit five points from play and his aerial fetching was Kilkenny-esque in its brilliance. Ardscoil had no answer even drafting their centre back out in a vain attempt to neutralise the midfielder. This guy, still a minor this year I’m told, has incredible talent. His football brilliance is well documented but I’d like him to make the ‘caman’ the main focus in this hurling county of ours. Mind you perfectionists will find fault with his awkward grip and swing but there’s no doubting his effectiveness, which is what matters in the end. It will be interesting to see how his career evolves.

The replay looks like being a tight one again. Our Lady’s depend a lot for scores on that midfield partnership of O’Riordan and McGrath so perhaps Ardscoil are a more balanced outfit. Still I think Templemore have a very sturdy defence with Toomevara’s Jason Ryan a big performer at full back. The puck-out of Sean Patrick Guerins is a major asset too, especially in these windy conditions. With two spirited sides involved it promises to be another dinger of a contest.

Unfortunately the prospect of an all-Tipp Harty final ended last Saturday when Thurles came up short against Waterford Colleges at Fermoy. The Waterford lads are fancied to win the competition outright but nothing is assured especially in these wintry conditions.

Unfortunately the Harty replay clashes head-on with Thurles Sarsfields and their bid to make a first ever All Ireland club final when they face the Offaly champions at Portlaoise on Saturday. Mind you I’ve heard reservations being expressed about the Portlaoise pitch following recent games at the venue. The present inclemency, and the forecast for the coming week, won’t help matters either and such conditions will hardly suit Sarsfields.

The Tipperary champs are overall favourites to win the All Ireland and they go into Saturday’s match at prohibitive odds of 1\7. By contrast you can back the Offaly men at 5\1. Such odds suggest a one-sided game but let’s hope Sarsfields aren’t watching Paddy Power. Conditions at this time of year can be a great leveller with heavy going, low scores and physical battles often developing. Sometimes it’s the team with the physical heft and the stomach for battle which thrives, so don’t expect a soft run for the Tipp champions in this one.

Sarsfields certainly have the highlight names, led by Corbett, so it’s easy to see why public perception has them already home and hosed without a ball being pucked. By contrast Kilcormac-Killoughey are short of recognisable personnel. Instead they appear to have a compact unit who play a typical brand of Offaly hurling. Their Leinster victory over Oulart-the-Ballagh came against the odds so they’ll relish being underdogs once again. Incidentally their most famous name from the past was the great dual-player of the eighties, Liam Currams. And there’s a Tipperary connection with the present team in Trevor Fletcher. The former Roscrea player was a Tipp minor in 1997 and 1998, winning a Munster medal in the former year. He subsequently emigrated to New York before returning to settle in Kilcormac.

For both clubs this is a maiden voyage but in other aspects they are polar opposites. Sarsfields have a long and illustrious tradition in Tipperary dating back to the early years of the association whereas the present Kilcormac-Killoughey club lists its formation date as 1986. In 2012 they won their first ever Offaly title. With a lot of underage success also on their card they’re very much the new force in Offaly hurling and I suspect this is bonus territory for them following their breakthrough in the county. Bonus territory can be a positive for a team which feels free to go out and have a go, uninhibited by pressure.

For Sarsfields it’s different. Their Munster win was a huge relief after previous failures and there is a perception now that a path has opened for them which may not appear again. Ballyhale are gone and so are Portumna so the really big hitters of previous year are out of the equation. Three of the last four are first-timers at this level so it’s very much a case of opportunity knocks for the Tipperary champions. The word from Thurles is that they’ve prepared extremely well and are ready for the action.

All Ireland club champions have been scarce in Tipperary so we’d really relish our champion club making the breakthrough. Let’s hope they’ve wintered well since the Munster win. Good luck to them.